With the rash of World War II and Holocaust-related films we’ve gotten in the past few decades—and will continue to get for a long time, no doubt—it’s good that, very once in a while, we see that turbulent time recounted through the eyes of a civilian. I’ve no problem with war movies—I’m rather excited for Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk later in the summer. Being able to relate to a character or cast of characters that aren’t armed and storming the field of battle, however, makes for an even more powerful experience for non-military-inclined people, like me. The lack of real star-power (outside of Jessica Chastain and Daniel Brühl) helps ground the film in reality, as well, and made it easier for me to concentrate on the characters and the story.
Brimming with emotion, The Zookeeper’s Wife—based on a book that was inspired by true events—is a film to see in a theatre setting. The gravitas of the film’s events is something to be experienced on a big screen to be truly impactful. I laughed, I teared up, all along with the characters in the film.
Chastain is phenomenal, as always. Her character’s evolution throughout the course of the film is dynamic, and she offers a good contrast to Brühl. His portrayal of Nazi zoologist Heck is intense, due to his intimidating on-screen presence, as well as his initial likability. Early on, when they’re put in the same room and circumstances as colleagues, it’s established that they’re close—even equals—but the War soon tears them apart. A villain with a humble beginning and admirable intentions is rare, nowadays, and I credit the filmmakers for constructing him as such.
The costume design here is exceptional, too. Pair that with the realistic depiction of the Warsaw atmosphere during war-time, and I felt really grounded in the events unfolding on-screen. As we moved throughout the six years of the Nazi occupation of Poland, the transitions through time are inventive and seamless. A lot happens in only a few, short shots, and a lot is said with very little formal wordage. There are moments of intensity as this family is on the brink of being found out for hiding runaway Jews in their home, and other times of levity and heart—especially when the animals of the zoo are involved.
Overall, the message of this film is hopeful. It’s important to remember that this is just one of many stories of people helping each other out during the War; many more families across Europe during that time were also putting their lives on the line to save friends and strangers, alike. The same is done here, even though the Zabinskis have no obligation to take anyone in, outside of their close circle of friends.
The Zookeeper’s Wife is a testament to the inherent strength of the human condition: Caring for our neighbors, even when all instinct tells us to just fend for ourselves. There’s a reason why World War II is so fascinating a time-period to me, and that sums it up pretty well. Final ‘Risk Assessment: ****/*. I’ll be looking forward to more stories like this as time goes on.
Next review: Ghost in the Shell (2017)